By the time you read this, Munich's High End 2019 will be a distant memory (footnote 1). Yet as I write this, having just returned from Munich, the experience is fresh in my mind. It's the most compelling audio topic I can think of, crying out for commentary.

Munich is to audiophiles—to this one at least—what New York's 5th Avenue is to Black Friday shoppers. It's the audiophile version of flying through a canyon with a wing suit on. It's a giant rush, audio cocaine.

In early May, over four days, 21,180 people visited 551 high-end exhibitors from 42 countries. According to the organizers, visitors were up 6.5% over the previous year. Exhibitors were up 3.8%. More than 500 members of the audio press attended. (Imagine 500 audio writers all in one place. Scary.) It's a vibrant, successful show.

No aspect of our industry/hobby was unrepresented—neither analog nor digital, neither monster amps nor single-ended triodes. One loudspeaker had 13 drivers (the prototype from cable company Siltech); other speakers (by Cube Audio and Manger, among many others) had just one. Some had conventional boxes, some looked like starships or mushrooms—some looked like something you'd be unlikely to encounter unless you had partaken of said mushrooms.

It was a very varied show, but the overwhelming impression—my overwhelming impression—was of a venue ripe with the High End's highest end. Von Schweikert's system featured their Ultra 9 loudspeakers ($200,000/pair— one step down from the $300,000/pair Ultra 11) and VAC's 450iQ integrated amplifier ($150,000). It sounded great. In the Göbel room, which I didn't hear, that company's Divin Noblesse loudspeakers (€164,000/pair) were supported by some €300,000 in electronics from Engstrom and Wadax; that total doesn't count the €100,000-plus vinyl front end. John DeVore, who is known for loudspeakers at less stratospheric prices, showed his new, four-box O/Reference system, which will retail in the United States for $85,000 or more, depending on the wood veneer. TechDAS showed its new Zero turntable; I don't know if a price has been officially announced, but one report that smells reliable says €390,000 (footnote 2). I was told the show's most expensive system came in at about €2.5 million, give or take, although I didn't see or hear it myself.

I'm a middle-class guy who loves music and listening to it in the best sound possible. I don't like the image of high-end audio as a playground for billionaires, respect this part of the industry though I do. It's not about that for me.

However—I've got to admit—this stuff is fun to gawk at. Where else can you hear so much high-end stuff in one place? And if sales of megabuck systems help support the industry, I'm all for it—so long as manufacturers don't get distracted from delivering excellent audio gear at prices accessible to audiophilia's middle class, those of us who live in the real world.

There's reason to hope, perhaps to believe, that cost-is-no-object, all-out assaults on audio's state of the art serve to make more affordable systems better. Both Damon Von Schweikert and John Devore framed the expensive gear they presented at the show as an effort to do that, at least in part; Devore even suggested, in a comment at (footnote 2), that he doesn't expect to make much money from his O/Ref system: It's a research project, with the explicit aim of trickling down to more affordable models the knowledge gained and technology invented.

In Munich, there were relatively affordable, excellent-sounding offerings from companies that usually make more expensive stuff—and not just loudspeakers. Mark Levinson's system included a new SACD player, the No.5101, which will sell for $5500—cheap by Levinson standards. Amplification was provided by Levinson's $7000 No.5802 integrated amplifier, the all-digital companion to the No.5805 that graced the cover of the July issue of Stereophile. I was also taken with Krell's $7500 K-300i integrated amplifier. Elsewhere, on static display, was the Aesthetix Mimas integrated amplifier ($7000 plus options), which JVS reviews in this issue; the elite, sub-$10k integrated amplifier appears to be a trend. Even further down the price ladder, SVS, which can be counted on to produce low-priced, high-value speakers, was showing the new Prime Pinnacle (€899 each and up), while Pro-Ject showed a tiny $400 all-tube, all-discrete, passive-EQ phono stage with variable gain and flexible resistive and capacitive loading.

Still, the focus of most rooms I saw was on megabuck electronics and speakers.

There's some irony here. The acoustics at the High End 2019 venue were fine—unobjectionable—and yet, a big, ambitious loudspeaker requires an ambitious room (footnote 3) to perform at its best. In a trade-show hall such as Munich's MOC, the largest, most ambitious loudspeakers can't show their real stuff. And if the loudspeakers can't sing, neither can the electronics that back them up. Munich, then, is about showing off high-dollar systems—but it's not about showing them off at their best.

If you're serious about auditioning a pair of very expensive loudspeakers, get on an airplane and visit the company or a major hi-fi dealer, one of the handful with high-end stock and carefully tuned listening rooms. Munich isn't the place to do it.

Munich, though, on those four days in spring, is one of the best places in the world to experience an audio—induced sense of wonder and awe (awedio?). Munich is for the rush.—Jim Austin

Footnote 1: Although we're keeping the memory alive with our show coverage in this issue.

Footnote 2: See

Footnote 3: Although not necessarily big. Consider Brian Damkroger's experience with the huge, megabuck Wilson WAMM Master Chronosonic.

ok's picture

being forced to take its unreal claims at face value, hi-end is pure fun; like getting a thrill out of x-files without actually believing in government conspiracy or alien invasion.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Some of the equipment displayed at the Munich show, even look like UFOs :-) .........